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June 6, 2016

Opinion: Here are a few tweaks to Seattle's zoning that could open up some design options

Special to the Journal

Any baby boomer can recite Maxwell Smart's most popular catch phrase from the 1960s TV show “Get Smart.” He was known for the “missed it by that much” retort.

Seattle's explosive urban growth has proven to be a learning curve for many downtown residents. These folks are finding out what architects and engineers have known for decades. When it comes to the origins of mapping city blocks, Seattle's early planners missed it by that much… albeit just by a few feet.

The typical block dimensions, primarily in the east/west direction, have always presented a restrictive design challenge for architects. With Design Review Boards pushing for more building modulation, this same restriction is an even more significant challenge than ever before.

At a recent Seattle DRB meeting a woman was protesting a proposed office building directly across the alley from her condo residence. To illustrate her point, she pulled out a tape measure and asked a DRB member to hold onto the end. She proceeded to extend the tape measure to 16 feet. She asked the DRB if they could see her from that distance. The obvious answer was yes.

“Well, this is the distance a future office worker in your building will be viewing me as I make dinner in my kitchen or read a book in my living room. How would you feel about that?” she asked.

One of the biggest challenges for architects designing new skyscrapers has to do with the location of the building's core (concrete shear walls typically containing the elevators, stairs and mechanical shafts), which hamstrings design options.

The core usually needs to be centrally located for an efficient parking layout. After combining the required core dimensions with the parking requirements, it only leaves about a foot or two for foundation walls below grade or parking screen walls above grade. The result is a limited latitude for design modulation that the DRB is requesting.

Given the property lines the early planners established, the potential options for improvement are limited. But there are potential tweaks to the Seattle Land Use and Zoning Code worth considering that would open up design options.

Tweak #1 Below Grade Parking

THE PROBLEM: Seattle's zoning code allows for four levels of parking above grade, provided that four are constructed below grade. Even when a parking garage above street level is allowed, the limited dimensions available handcuff an architect's ability to hide the parking.

THE TWEAK: Portland is famous for its small downtown blocks (200' x 200'). Another notable city feature is the allowance of parking stalls under sidewalks, beyond the property lines. This same overlap of parking below sidewalks should be allowed in Seattle on north/south streets. Also, just like Portland, utility zone provisions would be necessary directly below the sidewalk, but only to a depth of about four to six feet.

THE BENEFIT: Since the shortfall of the east/west property line dimension is the primary problem, parking under the north/south sidewalks would result in more efficient below grade parking. This ‘carrot' could be used by the city to incentivize developers if they are willing to put all parking below ground. Additionally, another five to 10 feet for lateral building core repositioning would translate into more architectural freedom for the tower modulation.

Tweak #2 – Building Modulation

THE PROBLEM: The DRB frequently requests architects introduce more facade modulation into their designs, which are often located on exceptionally tight sites. It's not uncommon that tower floor plates are only slightly smaller than the site itself. Once zoning and building code factors are taken into account, the design latitude for meaningful facade modulation is virtually nil, unless the developer is willing to eliminate code allowable floor plate area.

THE TWEAK: The current Seattle land use and zoning code already allows for a portion of a building facade (bay windows, decks and ornamental cornices) to extend a maximum of three feet beyond the street property line. There are prescribed three dimensional constraints that are too complicated to delineate here, but in general terms about 60 percent of the perimeter three-foot zone is allowed to extend over street property lines below. In order to allow for more facade modulation, the zoning code should allow building facades to extend beyond the property line to a minimum of six feet, or perhaps eight feet, with no area limitation, provided the maximum floor plate limits are not exceeded.

THE BENEFIT: While this proposed tweak might not seem like a radical proposal, it will incrementally benefit our city in two regards. First, this increased latitude will allow tall buildings to have more dynamic facade modulation. In other words, the current three-foot project limit is hardly noticeable on skyscrapers. If the projection increase is allowed, Seattle will finally have building facade modulation that is perceivable to people at street level. Secondly, for people who rent or own homes in high-rise buildings, extra breathing room would make a huge difference for increasing the potential daylight, fresh air and views for neighboring residents. I'm betting the woman with the tape measure would love 50 percent more separation from office workers sitting at their desks.

Every city has its own story regarding urban planning evolution. Here in Seattle, there's no blame or apologies required for the slight ‘miss' in our property line dimensioning history.

How would our city planner forefathers have ever known about the physical requirements for skyscraper building cores and parking stalls? But if they had, they may have uttered Maxwell Smart's second most famous line: “Sorry about that, Chief.”

Scott Douglas is a registered architect in Washington and a principal with MG2. He studied architecture at the University of Oregon. Throughout his career, he has worked in many facets of architecture and real estate ranging from development to design and construction.

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